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Sport in Alternate History. Part 6. Sport and Politics (II)

By Pete Usher

The previous article in this series can be found Here

“I wanted no part of politics. And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

Jesse Owens.

1924 – Paris

44 nations, 3089 athletes, 17 sports, 126 events.

Failed bids: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Prague, Rome.

The final Games organised under the leadership of Pierre de Courbertin saw Paris become the first city to host the Games twice. It was also the year of the first (retrospectively considered) separate Winter Games in Chamonix, which were initially offered to the nation hosting the Summer Games.

It was an Olympics of firsts; the first time the motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) was used; the first to have a laned, 50m swimming pool; the first to feature an official Olympic Village; and the first where Ireland competed as a separate national team, along with China, Ecuador, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Uruguay. It was also the first, as far as I can tell, to have no controversies, unless the continued exclusion of German athletes counts.

What it did have was a cultural impact, although not until 1981, when the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire was released. As with many (perhaps all) historical films, the events shown on screen are not a true reflection of the actual story.

In the film, Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, is shown finding out that the 100m heats would be run on a Sunday as he boards the ship taking the British team to France. His faith prevents him from competing on that day, so he switches to the 200m and 400m races, winning a dramatic gold in the latter. The reality is that the schedule had been released well in advance of the Games, and Liddell had made the decision months prior to the event, adjusting his training and goals in plenty of time. Liddell also turned down spots in both the 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams, as these races were also going to be run on a Sunday.

Still, the resulting film won four Oscars including Best Picture, three BAFTAs, and a host of other awards. The film and soundtrack were also a memorable part of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.

It didn't happen like this. Chariots of Fire. Chariots not included.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

1928 – Amsterdam

46 Nations, 2883 athletes, 14 sports, 109 events.

Failed bids: Los Angeles.

The Dutch capital finally got a chance to host the Games in 1928, after three previous failed attempts. This was another Games of firsts; the first to be organised under IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour; the first to have a flame burning for the duration of the Games; the first to have Coca-Cola as a sponsor; and the first to standardise the running track at 400m. The Games also saw the return of the German team, who finished second in the medal tale.

Once again, an athletics event would have a significant impact on future Games, although this one would be less positive.

Female participation at the Olympic Games had always been lower than that of male competitors. Indeed, the first Olympics did not allow women to compete, and even by the time of the ninth Games, the disparity in competitor numbers by gender was huge (2606 men, 277 women), and there were far fewer events for women on the schedule. There were 22 athletics events for men, only 5 for women and even that was a reduction from the 10 promised. The British women’s team withdrew from the athletics programme in protest at this reduction. Of the five athletics events for women, the 800m was being contested for the first time.

On 2nd August 1928, the final of the 800m took place, with nine women lining up at the start. The race itself was remarkable, with the first three finishers breaking the World Record, and all the competitors finishing. All showed the normal signs of exertion, and one fell at the end trying to secure a higher place, but was up within seconds. All of this can be verified through footage of the race.

The media reporting of the 800m was sensationalised. Lurid reports of most of the finishers collapsing in exhaustion, of 5 of 11 starters not even finishing (amazing given that there were 9 competitors), of races that long causing women to age prematurely (you can thank the Daily Mail for that one). There were even suggestions that races of this length would cause women’s fertility and reproductive health to be impaired. The event was described as dangerous, and the competitors described as “11 wretched women” in the New York Evening Post.

Despite the reality being that no-one collapsed, the upshot was that the IOC and IAAF prevented women from racing over any distance more than 200m at the Olympics until 1960. It isn’t unreasonable for the runners in an Olympic final where the World record is broken multiple times to have pushed themselves to the limits of their strength, and it is common to see competitors catching their breath and lying on the track at the end of the race. However, women would have to wait 32 years to show what they could do at this distance and beyond. Perhaps more honest media reporting would have led to an earlier growth in women’s athletics (and sports in general).

Ethel Smith of Canada at the 1928 Olympics. It would be another 32 years before women were allowed to run more than 200m at the Olympics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

1932: Los Angeles

37 nations, 1332 athletes, 14 sports, 117 events.

Failed bids: None.

After failing to gain the 1928 games, Los Angeles was the only bid for the 1932 Games, and there was no real political controversy before the Games. As with Amsterdam four years previously, there were a number of firsts at the Games. Los Angeles was the first Olympics to have a mascot (Smoky, a Scottish Terrier). It was the first Games to have a purpose built Olympic village. It was also the first Games to use the classic three-step podium for medal presentations.

In terms of controversy during the Games, Paavo Nurmi, the famous Finnish athlete, was suspended due to alleged violations of the strict amateur rules in place. The Finns believed this was down to Swedish officials, and they ceased any athletic relations with Sweden. This meant the annual Finland-Sweden Athletics International was not held again until 1939.

Otherwise, Los Angeles was a quiet Olympics.* The Games had settled down. Surely the next event would be equally quiet and controversy free.

*There was the small matter of Stanisława Walasiewicz, but that matter wasn’t determined until her death in 1980. As such, it didn’t cause controversy at the time, and remains a story for another day. Probably written by one more familiar with the subject.

Paavo Nurmi, suspended in 1932.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

1936: Berlin

49 nations, 3963 athletes, 19 sports, 129 events.

Failed bids: Alexandria, Barcelona, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cologne, Dublin, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Lausanne, Montevideo, Nuremburg, Rio De Janeiro, Rome.


When the IOC met in Barcelona on 26 April 1931, the Second Spanish Republic had been declared, and the Weimar republic was under the Chancellorship of Heinrich Brüning. In the last vote to be held in one of the candidate cities, Berlin was awarded the 1936 Games. It is possible that uncertainty around the nascent Spanish Government, only 69 days old at that point, contributed to Berlin winning out, but Weimar Berlin was seen as a solid choice.

Once the Nazis came to power, things changed. Hitler saw the Games as a propaganda opportunity for the Nazi ideals of antisemitism and Aryan superiority. Jewish athletes were barred from taking part, although one German athlete of Jewish descent did eventually represent their country, the fencer Helene Mayer, who won a silver medal. The Völkischer Beobachter, the official Nazi paper, printed editorials strongly stating that Jews and black people should not be allowed to compete. However, this position brought a backlash and a threatened boycott by other nations, and so the Nazi position softened to allow black and Jewish people to compete. Just prior to the Games, around 600 Romani in Berlin were arrested and taken to what would become the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp, before being moved on to other camps, including Auschwitz.

The boycott debate was heated, with the rise of the Nazis driving debate in many countries including the UK, USA, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia. Individual Jewish athletes chose not to attend. The debate in the United States was considerable, with those who wanted to keep politics out of sport, and therefore attend the Olympics, winning out. American Jewish organisations were in favour of a boycott, while many African-American newspapers were supportive of participation, arguing that black successes would undermine the Aryan supremacy that the Nazis were promoting.

Thus, no widely organised boycott occurred. There were two places where a boycott did happen. One was the Soviet Union, although it would be fair to say that this was a continued stance – there had been no entry in 1920 due to the ongoing Russian Civil War, and from 1924, the USSR had stayed away on ideological grounds. Instead, from 1928 they had organised a workers’ alternative games, called the Spartakiad.

The other country that actively boycotted the Berlin Games was Spain, where the left-wing Popular Front organised the People’s Olympiad, to be held in Barcelona. Around 6000 athletes from 22 countries registered for the games, including teams representing Germany and Italy made up of political exiles. The Soviet Union sent a team, and there was representation from Alsace, Galicia, Catalonia, and the Basque Country. Then the day before the People’s Olympiad was due to begin, the Nationalist coup d’etat was launched, starting the Spanish Civil War, and the Olympiad was cancelled. At least 200 athletes remained in Spain, fighting on the Republican side.

Two countries did not attend the Olympic Games at all. Ireland did not enter as the IAAF had expelled the National Athletic and Cycling Association for refusing to restrict itself to the Free State rather than the whole island; and Lithuania was not invited due to the Klaipėda Region/Memelland dispute.

As the Games started, legacies and controversies continued to be born. Berlin was the first Games to have an Olympic Torch relay, bringing the flame to the stadium. The opening ceremony itself was set up to be a Nazi propaganda coup. During the parade of nations, some delegations gave a Nazi salute, while others gave the Olympic Salute, which was very similar, and has fallen out of favour since the Second World War, for obvious reasons. Some others declined to salute at all. Flags were dipped as the delegations passed the Fuhrer’s box, with notable exceptions from the USA, UK, Switzerland, and The Philippines. (Editor’s note: I wonder if Hitler was Fuhrer-ious.) However, all the pomp and ceremony did not go exactly to plan. At one point, 25,000 pigeons were released, followed by a cannon shot, resulting in scared pigeons doing what scared pigeons do, over the competitors.

The Olympic salute, sculpted by Gra Rueb for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

The sporting controversies were more limited, and Nazi Germany topped the medal table. Hitler only shook hands with German medal winners on 1st August, ignoring those from other countries. Jesse Owens famously won four gold medals: the 100m (3rd August), long jump (4th August), 200m (5th August), and as part of the 4x100m relay team (9th August). Famously, Hitler did not congratulate him, but it appears that Hitler did not congratulate any gold medallists after the first day.

Jesse Owens winning the Long Jump, Berlin 1936.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hitler did snub an African-American athlete on his first day – Cornelius Johnson, who won the high jump, setting an Olympic record. The Fuhrer was reportedly upset by Owens’ triumphs, but by Owens’ own account, the real snub was after the Games, when President Franklin D Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House. Owens was a staunch Republican, and supported Alf Landon in the 1936 election.

There was also controversy in the football tournament. In the quarter finals, Peru beat Austria 4-2 after extra time. Peru had three other goals ruled out in the extra period, and had already come back from two goals down with fifteen minutes to go. Peruvian fans had invaded the pitch, and there were claims that they had manhandled or assaulted Austrian players. Austria protested to FIFA and the IOC, but the Peruvian delegation did not make the hearing as they were held up by a Nazi parade. The hearing ruled in favour of the Austrians, and ordered a rematch. Peru’s entire Olympic delegation then left Germany in protest, along with that of Columbia, who left in solidarity. The Peruvians firmly believed that the Nazi party had influenced the decision. Austria went on to win the silver medal, losing to Italy in the final.

The shadow of the Nazis over the Olympic Movement would extend well beyond Berlin 1936.

1940: Tokyo (cancelled)

Failed bids: Barcelona, Helsinki, Rome.

The 1940 Olympics were awarded to Tokyo in 1936, making the Japanese capital the first non-Western city to host the Games. When the Second Sino-Japanese War started, there were immediate suggestions that the Games should be forfeited. The 1938 Far Eastern Games were cancelled, but the Japanese IOC delegates continued planning, believing the war would soon be over. However, by July 1938, it was clear that the ongoing war effort was not aligned with the Game’s needs, and Japan forfeited the Games. Tokyo would finally host the Games in 1964.

The IOC then awarded the 1940 Games to the runner up in the bidding process, the Finnish capital Helsinki. However, with the outbreak of World War II, and in particular the Winter War, the Olympics were suspended for the duration of the conflict. Helsinki would host the Games in 1952.

1944: London (cancelled).

Failed bids: Athens, Budapest, Detroit, Helsinki, Lausanne, Montreal, Rome.

London was awarded the 1944 Games in June 1939, just weeks before the German invasion of Poland triggered a global conflict. The suspension of Olympic activity meant the next Games would be in 1948.

To be continued...

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